The local church is a present outpost of the future, coming kingdom of God. This kingdom is unlike any the earth has known; it is led by Christ, and all are living in harmony with his will and his ways. The church is composed of living examples of God’s holy plan for human life and relationships. When Christian men and women work together to plant churches, their cooperation becomes a compelling witness to God’s goodness and grace. Beyond the theological reasons, research shows that women are highly effective at evangelism and church planting, even in countries where they are disempowered socially and their work is not validated.1 Imagine what could happen if the body of Christ fully supported and empowered the efforts of both male and female church planters! And whether the lead planter is male or female, there needs to be a full embrace of partnership between men and women in order for a church to rightly represent the body of Christ. I’d like to offer a vision of what that looks like and a game plan for how to get there.
A Vision of Men and Women Working Together in the Kingdom of God
In John 17 Jesus prays for the unity of all believers. Jesus concludes his prayer by saying the result of this unity will be that “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). In essence, our oneness is our witness. The fact that Jesus prayed for unity presumes both the presence of diversity and the challenges diversity creates. When women and men work together in healthy and holy ways, their unity in Christ increases the redemptive impact of the church in the world.
Mutual respect and mutual submission motivate gift-based ministry, resulting in Spirit-empowered work for the kingdom of God, for God’s glory. In an oversexualized world that declares sexual tensions to be inescapable, the local church can be a countercultural place of welcome and rest, where genuine phileo love (or friendship) reigns without awkwardness or reserve. In a world that wields power for selfish purposes, the church can be a place where individuals carefully steward and humbly share leadership. As the church incarnates God’s design for love and faith in how we live and work, people in the world will see the difference.
How Do We Get There?
1. We prioritize God’s mission.
God has called all of us to make disciples, which should ultimately lead to the planting of new churches (Matt. 28:19). To reach the whole world with the good news, we need the whole church to be on mission together. When only one gender is engaged in this process, it’s as if the body of Christ has had a stroke and lost all function of one side. Movement becomes terribly difficult, awkward, and ineffective. Stimulating a church-planting movement across any nation will require full-body participation, coordination, and integration. This needs to be our priority.
The famous, so-called Billy Graham rule has been justifiably scrutinized over the past few years because of how it necessarily excludes women from key conversations with male leaders. My biggest complaint against the Billy Graham rule is that it prioritizes fear of potential sin over our united call to mission. It wrongly assumes that we who have been redeemed cannot have victory over lust. It permanently casts women in the role of temptress and men in the role of predator. This is not who we are in Christ!
The countercultural kingdom of God does not use barriers to heal broken relationships. Jesus breaks down barriers and sets us in right relationship with God and each other. We do not need to cut ourselves off from the opposite sex out of fear of temptation, depriving the church of the many benefits that come from collaboration between women and men. We can instead build holy, redeemed, and authentic relationships with each other that are no longer defined by our sin natures.
In the book Mixed Ministry, authors Sue Edwards, Kelley Matthews, and Henry Rogers suggest that Christians can have genuinely affectionate relationships with the opposite sex by learning to value and appreciate each other as “sacred siblings.”2 Just as brothers and sisters in a biological family love, protect, help, and inspire each other without the “cloud of lust,”3 so can brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sadly, there are many cases where Christians have fallen prey to sexual sin, so we should not be naive. I am not proposing that we completely ignore our capacity to sin but that we do not let that potential become the basis for how we engage in ministry. Rather than limit our contact with the opposite sex, we need to commit to finding ways to move forward in mission together without compromising integrity. We do not need a one-size-fits-all rule; rather we need to be self-aware and sensitive to the Holy Spirit. Bring every encounter before Christ, inviting him to guide us in each situation.
2. We communicate with wisdom, verbally and nonverbally.
Words have power and can shape our culture. How we speak about God and each other will influence how we engage in ministry. This begins with our choice of Bible translation. Choosing translations that accurately reflect the inclusive nature of the kingdom of God will equip team members to be inclusive in their preaching and teaching. Jesus is our model for inclusive preaching. Many of his parables were taught in pairs, using imagery and examples that spoke to both men and women: farming and baking, shepherding and housekeeping, winemaking and robe-mending. Jesus was not enforcing stereotypes; he was making his kingdom teachings accessible to all.
Communication involves not only our message but how we interact with our brothers and sisters. When speaking to and of another, our words should never be disparaging, belittling, or sexist. This does not mean that we cannot disagree but rather that even our disagreements are marked by careful listening, kindness, and respect. When I was a pastor of women’s ministries, I had a zero-tolerance policy for husband-bashing. We created a culture where we spoke well of our spouses and of men in general.
Beware of ambivalent sexism, revealed in blanket statements such as, “Women are just naturally more nurturing than men.” According to an article in Christianity Today, “This type of sexism undermines opportunities for women through emphasizing the nurturing role of women (particularly in raising children) and the male role as protector of and provider for women.”4 In a church-planting team, individuals should be appreciated for the gifts that they bring to the table and empowered to contribute according to their specific experience and ability.
Nonverbal communication is also important. In her book Making Room for Leadership, Dr. MaryKate Morse explains that leaders need to be aware of how they are stewarding their power through body language. “It is thousands of little body postures, gestures, nuanced voices and intricate, intuitive engagements with others. It is how you enter a room, position yourself to speak, modulate your voice and use your eyes, while at the same time assessing others who are sharing that same space.”5 For men and women to work together, we need to be aware of how power is expressed within a team, and that includes our nonverbal signals.
3. We see diversity as a strength.
If men and women were the same, it wouldn’t matter if a church-planting team comprises only one gender. It is precisely because we are different that both are needed. Forbes recently published an article titled, “What Do Countries with the Best Coronavirus Re-sponses Have in Common? Women Leaders.”6 COVID-19 presented the world with a new challenge, one for which women leaders have demonstrated certain skills that have not been as prevalent in their male counterparts. According to Wittenberg-Cox, these include trust, decisiveness, and love. The author concludes with these words: “There have been years of research timidly suggesting that women’s leadership styles might be different and beneficial. Instead, too many political organizations and companies are still working to get women to behave more like men if they want to lead or succeed.”7
Indeed, it is of no value to a church-planting team if women must behave more like men in order to participate, and vice versa! But what this means is that there will be diverse leadership styles, diverse worship preferences, diverse biblical interpretations, and diverse interpersonal styles. A church-planting team that can embrace those differences will be highly effective at reaching their community with the gospel.
Unfortunately, many tend to seek out teammates that resemble themselves instead of those that complement them. The result may be fewer disagreements but also bigger and more glaring blind spots. During our wedding ceremony, the pastor said something that has stuck with us through almost thirty years of marriage. He said, “When you argue, rather than seeing the disagreement as David versus Jenn, see it as David and Jenn presenting two sides of an issue in an attempt to discern God’s best for the family.” What each person brings has value, and when it is heard and honored, it will make the end result stronger.
Building strong mixed-gender ministry teams is not only possible, it is what Christ asks of us. We are his disciples, invited to join in his work, for his glory. We are all called to make disciples, and we need each other in that process. If are to reach the world, we will have to work together, focusing on God’s mission, being wise about how we communicate God’s message, and celebrating the diversity of God’s kingdom.
1. Rebecca Lewis, “Underground Church Movements: The Surprising Role of Women’s Networks,” Proceedings of the ISFM 2004 Meeting: Insider Movements, https://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/21_4_PDFs/Role_of_Women.pdf.
2. Sue Edwards, Kelley Mathews, and Henry J. Rogers, Mixed Ministry: Working Together as Brothers and Sisters in an Oversexed Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008).
3. Edwards, Mathews, and Rogers, Mixed Ministry, 64.
4. Interview by Karen Swallow Prior, “The ‘Benevolent Sexism’ at Christian Colleges,” Christianity Today, November 9, 2012, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/november-web-only/benevolent-sexism-at-christian-colleges.html.
5. MaryKate Morse, Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008), Kindle loc 164.
6. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, “What Do Countries with the Best Coronavirus Responses Have in Common? Women Leaders,” Forbes, April 13, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/avivahwittenbergcox/2020/04/13/what-do-countries-with-the-best-coronavirus-reponses-have-in-common-women-leaders/.
7. Wittenberg-Cox, “Women Leaders.”
Jenn Williamson will offer a workshop at “Men, Women, and God: Theology and Its Impact,” CBE’s international conference in London, scheduled for August 11–14, 2021. Learn more here.
This article appeared in “Freedom to Flourish: Aligning Christian Faith and Women’s Equality with Humanitarian Work,” the Summer 2020 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.